On the heels of their narrow victory over El Salvador on Thursday night, Gregg Berhalter and his USMNT squad will head north of the border to take on Canada in a difficult test that will determine the new CONCACAF pecking order.
With the top three of the qualifying group – Canada, the USA and Mexico, in that order – all having won on Thursday night, little has changed in the battle for the three automatic qualification spots for the region, aside from the trio all having a bit more breathing room ahead of fourth-place Panama.
While far from mathematically assured, the overall qualifying situation is slowly narrowing in on looks to be a competition amongst the three to determine the presumptive CONCACAF hierarchy for the time being.
Sunday’s game is one that will go a long way to determine this; if either the Americans or Canucks score a victory, they are guaranteed to momentarily be in first place, while a draw will likely still be enough for the Canadians to hold the edge, even if only by goal differential in the likely case of a Mexico victory over Costa Rica in Azteca.
Apart from guaranteed sub-freezing conditions, what can be expected on Sunday afternoon when the teams kick off at 3pm Eastern time?
Considering the goalscoring successes of both of these teams, a dull, goalless affair would not be a recommended bet for the gambling types.
The Canadians can claim the two top scoring players in qualification so far, with Jonathan David, one of the world’s best forwards on current form, and Cyle Larin having scored four goals apiece in the first nine games.
Even though they are without their arguably best player – attacking wingback Alphonso Davies – due to a Covid-related heart concern, they are the most dangerous attacking team in the group, and will test the central defensive partnership of Walker Zimmerman and either Chris Richards and Miles Robinson.
Larin and Brenden Aaronson traded goals back in early-September when these two teams last met, in a 1-1 draw in Nashville that momentarily put Gregg Berhalter and his squad into a minor crisis.
In the seven qualifying games since, the Americans have earned 16 points while putting 12 goals in the opposing teams’ nets, the best points-per-game record in the qualifying group over that period of time.
Coming off of their narrow win over El Salvador, where a moment of opportunistic brilliance from a defender, Antonee Robinson, was necessary to avoid embarrassment, the Americans will have to make at least one adjustment to their starting eleven.
Outside forward Timothy Weah, who has been one of the more effective attacking players for the US, was unable to make the trip to Canada due to issues with his vaccine credentials, which are valid in France but incompatible with entry requirements in Canada.
Berhalter touched upon the issue in his pre-match comments, explaining “He had one vaccine shot, [then] he got Covid [while] he was awaiting the second shot. Due to the time of when he got Covid, he wasn’t able to get that second shot. However in France, he’s listed as fully vaccinated, because the one shot plus Covid means you’re vaccinated, [but] as a technicality it wasn’t acceptable in Canada.”
This will likely lead to the return of Ricardo Pepi to the starting lineup, after the 19 year-old Texan did not take the field at all against El Salvador. Additionally, Jesús Ferreira could lose his starting spot after wasting several opportunities, which could see a front three of Pepi, Aaronson and Christian Pulisic.
In addition to Weah, defender Brooks Lennon is also unavailable after Berhalter revealed in pre-game comments that the 24 year-old returned to his club team in Atlanta with an ankle problem, however his participation was in any case unlikely.
With no update on the arrival of keeper Zack Steffen, likely meaning he will remain in England for the entire window with his nagging back issue, Matt Turner will be in goal, but will be hard pressed to earn what would be a fourth shut-out in his seventh qualifying match between the sticks.
With both teams also quite resilient in the defense – they are tied with the best goals-against record only allowing five apiece – the battle will ultimately come down to which of the two can better deal with the others’ main point of attack, which is significantly different between the two.
For the Canadians, their primary strength is through their front three of David, Larin and new Brugge arrival Tajon Buchanan, who currently form the most lethal attacking trio in CONCACAF, and will put the American back line to the test.
Conversely, Berhalter’s squad has seen hot-and-cold inconsistency from its front line throughout qualifying. Instead, the team draws strength from its dynamic full-back play, particularly with Robinson and Sergiño Dest remaining constant threats anytime they gain possession with room to run. Additionally, a major, and still-growing impact comes from a robust, if not oppressively dominant central midfield, which will likely feature the “MMA” trio of Weston McKennie, Yunus Musah and captain Tyler Adams.
In short, the tasks for the Americans will be avoid even a single costly mistake against the deadly Canadian trio, while the hosts will have to avoid being systematically ground down enough to fall victim to a sneak attack from the sides.
Berhalter summed up his respect for their hosts in his pre-game comments, drawing comparisons to his own squad, but setting the path for achieving their goals.
“It’s similar to us that they have a young player pool [and] they have highly talented players,” he complimented. “When you think of Alfonso Davies, Jonathan David, Cyle Larin, Tajon Buchanan and Jonathan Osorio, they have a talented group of players, let’s make no mistake about it.”
“If you guys remember what I said in 2019 after we lost them,” he continued, “I said it’s a good team [and] I didn’t think that team was given enough credit.”
“It’s [now] a couple years later, [they are] top of the table after nine games, they’re a well-coached team, they know how to play, they have a clear philosophy, and they deserve to be where they are right now.”
“For us it’s an opportunity to try to get first in the group, and that’s where we want to finish. To do that, we’re going to have to have a good game against Canada.”
The game kicks off at 3pm Eastern time, in Tim Horton’s field in Hamilton, Canada.